Welfare Reform Bill — Report (5th Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:15 pm on 23rd January 2012.

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Photo of Lord Freud Lord Freud The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:15 pm, 23rd January 2012

I was going to say that 7 per cent of cohabiting couples and 2 per cent of married couples manage their finances completely. However, we recognise that there are cases-the noble Baroness mentioned some of them-which will require alternative arrangements. The Government intend to retain powers to split payments to couples as a safeguard. We are looking at the precise circumstances of where and how that split will be made and we will produce further detail as we develop the regulations. The obvious example, as the noble Baroness has said, is where there is proven abuse of the money by one partner or where children are considered to be at risk. But there will be other circumstances as well. That general point is accepted. Where an intervention by the state is required, we will make it to ensure that money goes to the right people or is split in the right way.

However, in circumstances where a universal credit award is split, neither party will receive specific elements such as that for child care. They will receive a proportion of the total award and be responsible for their own budgeting. Therefore, in practice, the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, Amendment 61C, is much closer to how we will manage such situations.

Universal credit is replacing a benefits system which in practice undermines personal responsibility by separating a person's income into different streams for different circumstances. This does not reflect the world of work or encourage financial responsibility. We must trust that people know what is best for them and for their families, with the exception of those individuals and families who cannot handle that responsibility. In respect of those who can, it is not for government to dictate how a family manages its money. However, we are committed to ensuring that people can access support to manage their payments and help them budget effectively.

We are looking at wide range of support. As noble Lords may remember, I think that one of the most exciting opportunities offered by universal credit is to enlarge the scope for financial inclusion which has been so lacking for many benefit recipients. We are looking at access to nationally available advice and guidance and at locally delivered, targeted support. We are talking to local authorities, housing associations and other stakeholders about how best to deliver this support. We are talking to the financial services sector about widening access to basic, including joint, bank accounts and developing improved budgeting accounts to help benefit recipients manage their money. We are looking to create valuable support mechanisms for a part of our community that simply has not had them. My aim is to have some quite specific new products that slot right under universal credit and give families much more flexibility to manage their money. I look forward to sharing more detailed proposals with your Lordships in due course.

With regard to my noble friend's sleeping patterns, I think I can allow him to sleep at night. If we find that we need to make more splits than anticipated the computer system will allow us to do that. We are designing that in. If he is right and I am wrong we will be able to make those changes, albeit more in the pattern of Amendment 61C than Amendment 61B. I can also assure him of a commitment to conduct intensive research on how universal credit works. We will make sure that what we are doing optimises the position for families. I hope with that second commitment my noble friend will not only sleep but sleep like a baby. With these explanations I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.